East Africa: Nairobi hosts AMA Awards but region’s industry faces problems

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To prove that East Africa in general is not a movie production backwater, Nairobi recently hosted the Africa Movie Awards (AMA) nominations ceremony, dubbed the Oscars of Africa, which brought together industry players from stars, producers, and script writers to government and professional associations’ officials.

The event held at the Ole Sereni Hotel in Nairobi was the first in the region and had the local movie industry abuzz. For a long time now, the region's Savannahs and urban slums have been a feature of a number of Hollywood productions, some of which have won international awards.

However, despite the fine weather, talent and a ready audience, behind and in front of camera, the region's movie industry is still playing catch up to other parts of Africa, especially West Africa and South Africa. This has allowed West African productions, particularly Nigerian and Ghanaian, to dominate the market.

Since Nigeria is not that far ahead of other regions in terms of moviemaking technology and given the fact its productions dwell on issues that East Africans can easily identify with, why have producers able to emulate its success?

"The secret of Nigerian moviemakers lies in the ability to always find away of weaving a captivatingly story from the most mundane of issues," observes Ojiambo Ainea, a Kenyan actor.

With themes ranging from domestic violence, to witchcraft and crime, these movies resonate with many viewers in sub-Saharan Africa. "In the past, many Kenyan directors for example, focused on themes that were too academic or plots that were too complicated to be executed with the available knowhow and equipment, or to relate to the common man easily," Ainea further notes.

When the famous Nigerian actress Rita Dominic visited Kenya last year to mark her country's 50th Independence celebrations, she was swamped by autograph seeking fans and media people soliciting interviews.

But in East Africa, especially Kenya, the plight of actors is the opposite. Most are paid peanuts and have to supplement acting with other jobs. Also, most producers prefer recycling actors fearing that new faces will not have the same impact on audiences, which greatly affects talent growth. The growth of actors has also been hampered by the fact that most producers still prefer the small screen to the silver screen.

"One of the biggest hindrances for the Kenyan movie industry is a poor distribution network," notes Ainea. "There is no developed mechanism to deliver the movies from the production houses to the market." He cites the example of Toto Millionaire, which was on the Kenya Airways in-flight screening programme immediately after its release in 2009, but is yet to hit the market, two years later.

"Apart from distribution issues unlike in Nigeria, we are a strong association of Kenya movie makers and actors that can lobby for their cause," Ainea adds. In Nigeria the actors and directors guild ensures that the government controls piracy and that all foreign movie shoots hire local staff.

Through the lobby groups the industry declined to pay taxes until the government addressed piracy."Most Kenyan actors and directors prefer television movies because unlike in film where one has to do the marketing, in TV there are sponsors and sometimes the media house will pay," he says.

Ainea suggests that Kenyan producers should learn from Ugandans who usually popularise their movies by running subsidised promotions in learning institutions, which greatly improves awareness.

"The Kenyan industry is doing so badly that when Multichoice Africa, the owners of DSTV pay TV, decided to run Kenyan movies on the Africa Magic channel, they were done in less than two weeks," Ainea.

Rwanda for instance, has managed to create a formidable movie industry in a period of 15 years through methods that could be used as a prototype by the rest of the region. "Rwanda has the highest number of movies per capita movies produced in the last 15 years in sub-Saharan Africa with at least one major film being shot every year," says Eric Kabera, the founder of the Rwanda Cinema Centre.

"One of the things we do in Rwanda is we have mobile movie units that ensure people in the countryside are as updated about new movies as their urban counterparts." Rwanda Cinema Academy, the first of its kind in the region, identifies and trains talented young people in film production by inviting renowned moviemakers from around the world as guest educators.

After interactions with their Nigerian counterparts, Kenyan productions houses are gradually changing to simpler storylines and plots with mass appeal. One of the most prominent drivers of this transition have been the Nairobi-based Jitu Productions.

Also as one of the best known marketers of Kenyan movies in the country under the name Jitu Films, the company located in downtown Nairobi has been trail blazing in marketing to create a sustainable connection between producers and consumers.

"Besides the perennial problem of the distribution network in Kenya, formulating a low price per disk without a DVD company in the country is very hard," explains Alex Konstantaras, the company's director. "Since we burn our disks abroad, we have to pay import duty and other costs that which eventually push prices upwards."

The company has struck a deal with four major supermarkets in the country where their DVDs are sold at a promotional rate of Ksh300 ($). To maximise returns, Jitu Films have made a record 24 movies which they intend to release one per month for the next two years.

"Besides this there is also the obtrusive Kenya Films Censorship Board whose requirements are prohibitive for producers," Konstantaras notes. "Apart from buying expensive stickers, there is also the Ksh100 per minute censorship fee that one has to pay the Board for every movie."

Although television stations are supposed to pay censorship fees for the locally produced content that they air, they usually don't, which means they keep all the profits -- which explains why every producer want to do TV series.

KFCB banned Otto The Blood Bath, a Jitu Films production, from showing in Kenya on the grounds that "the film was too horrific even to an adult and was showing dead human characters for too long." Ironically Otto The Blood Bath won Best EAC Film 2009 during the 5th Annual Rwanda Festival.